Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#100: Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77

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One of the principal architects of American new wave music, along with Blondie, Devo, and a select few others, NYC’s Talking Heads upended the pop paradigm in 1977 with this groundbreaking debut. Frontman David Byrne’s agitated nerd persona, pretty much fully formed from the get-go, was a real game-changer at a time when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves. The top tune here is of course “Psycho Killer,” which rivals The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” as the most sinister jukebox classic of the rock era. That career-defining track alone likely lifts this album into the nether regions of the RS list ahead of the Heads’ two later ‘70s releases, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, both of which are superior in my opinion. While the 11 tracks on 77 all thrum with energy and wit – “The Book I Read” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” are among the standouts – in hindsight the musicianship and melodies sound a bit rudimentary compared to the subsequent globe-spanning work by this ever-evolving band. Still, as rock ‘n’ roll introductions go, this is a tantalizing taste of things to come.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 7

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Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

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1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

Call it the Little Album That Could. Unlike the two previous annual list-toppers posted on this blog, the first full-length effort by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever was not a slam-dunk for best of the year. Hope Downs is neither the final masterpiece by a beloved rock icon who’d had a career full of them, like 2016’s worthy winner, nor, as was the case with 2017’s champ, an audacious, brainy comeback inspired by the death of said icon. No, it’s simply fun, jangly indie rock, played with shiver-inducing vitality and a lack of fuss, the way God intended. Ten great songs, imbued with the familiarity of bygone groups that I adore, by a scrappy Melbourne fivesome with an unwieldy moniker and a knack for killer hooks. And in the complicated climate of 2018, that ended up being enough. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

2. Laura Veirs – The Lookout

sdrYou know how Harvest Moon is only, like, the ninth or tenth best Neil Young album, and for sure one of his least ambitious, but there are certain times – I’m thinking Sunday at twilight, sitting on the porch and sipping an adult beverage as the sun sinks below the horizon—when its gentle country-folk ditties are all you want to hear? That thought came to mind as I was getting to know The Lookout, the latest solo outing by Colorado singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. Not just because gentle country-folk is well-represented here, by “Seven Falls,” “The Canyon,” and several other exquisitely crafted songs. (Though a few, such as “Watch Fire,” which features feathery counterpoint vocals by Sufjan Stevens, skirt the edges of indie-pop.) It’s also because, while this is most assuredly not the hippest album of 2018 – Veirs is the kind of lyricist who is unafraid to pen a sentimental line like “Man alive, I’m glad I found you” – I can’t think of one that sounds lovelier. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

3. Field Music – Open Here

27747790_10215571744268124_6901869236334913515_oSerendipity bonded me to the English pop-rock combo Field Music, led by Sunderland brothers David and Peter Brewis, on a sunny afternoon last winter. I’d only recently become aware of the 15-year-old group, having read a rave review of its sixth album, Open Here, in a magazine, and listened to the catchy, lyrically potent single “Count It Up” online. Curiosity piqued, I ambled down to my favourite Portsmouth record shop-slash-eatery Pie & Vinyl to see if perchance the album was in stock. I entered the shop to find, amongst the pies and the vinyl, none other than the Brewis bros performing an in-store set to a rapt audience. I was only able to catch the last song, but I grabbed a copy of Open Here and got them to autograph it. (Dig their marker scrawls on the cover in the accompanying photo.) In that moment, I felt that fate was telling me I’m meant to be a fan. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

4. Parquet Courts – Wide Awaaaaake!

cofOn paper, the sixth outing by critically adored Brooklyn band Parquet Courts doesn’t seem to support the argument for the album as a cohesive art form. It careens in nearly as many musical directions as there are tracks, kicking off with the Clash-like call to arms “Total Football” before swerving from Pink Floyd-scented psychedelia (“Mardi Gras Beads”) to bass-heavy disco-funk (“Wide Awake!”) to cinematic ‘60s pop (“Death Will Bring Change”) along the way. Yet perhaps more than any other album on my best-of-2018 list, it needs to be absorbed as a whole. Heard out of context, the frenetic verbal onslaught of the second track, “Violence,” might give the impression that the four group members are overly caffeinated, earnest-to-a-fault art-punks. (A random scan of previous releases would likely not dispel this notion.) Likewise, on its own, the mellow-rockin’ “Freebird II” might peg them as a Modern Lovers tribute act with a secret fondness for Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as produced by Danger Mouse, who has worked with artists as disparate as the Black Keys, Norah Jones and ASAP Rocky, it all sounds strangely of a piece. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

5. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now

cofIt was love at first listen. My devotion to Elvis Costello started when I wandered into a suburban Atlanta record store at the tender age of 16 and heard This Year’s Model blasting out of the sound system. I snapped up that album, Costello’s second, then and there, and returned to buy his equally brilliant debut, My Aim Is True, the next time I got paid. Dutifully, I purchased each successive release for many, many years, and saw him play live on three concert tours. Other than David Bowie, no solo artist takes up more space in my record collection. But as with any lengthy relationship, ours has had its rough patches. I’m lukewarm about Costello’s forays into genres outside his pop-rock wheelhouse, including classical music (The Juliet Letters) and country (Almost Blue). And sometime after 1989’s Spike, which featured his biggest U.S. hit, “Veronica,” the intensity of my ardour began to wane. In the years since, it’s dulled to a pleasant, comfortable-shoe familiarity. These days, I test-drive his latest efforts via streaming before committing to an LP or CD. I’ve never entertained the thought of “breaking up” with him – he’s meant too much to me in the past for that to happen. But the old magic has gone astray. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

6. Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army

cofAre these guys for real? That was my first impression upon hearing Greta Van Fleet’s full-length debut, a suspiciously spot-on paean to 1970s arena rock. “Age of Man” kicks off the album with an intro of pretty strings and flutes, evoking wandering minstrels at a Renaissance Fair. Then Joshua Kiszka’s voice, which rivals Rush’s Geddy Lee and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in its lofty pitch, pierces the pastoral mood. “In an age of darkness, light appears,” Kiszka, 22, screeches, sounding for all the world like a leotard-clad, codpiece-stuffing rock star from the era of lava lamps and gatefold album sleeves. The rest of the band – Josh’s twin bro Jacob Kiszka on guitar, younger sibling Sam Kiszka on bass, and family friend Danny Wagner on drums – enters with a prog-rock wallop and we’re off with a sound that borrows a bit from Rush and similar groups and a whole lot from Led Zep. It’s all alarmingly reminiscent of a bygone musical style that fell out of fashion the moment the Ramones played their first gig at CBGB’s. So, these many years later, in an age when irony is king, one can’t help but ask, seriously, are these youngsters pulling our legs? Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

7. The Lemon Twigs – Go to School

cofI remember, way back in the mid-1980s, playing the debut album by They Might Be Giants for a former roommate, a semi-Goth type with a fondness for the gloomier realms of rock music. He balked at the wackiness of such songs as “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and was downright offended by the use of accordion. “In 10 years, are you still going to be listening to this?” he scoffed. The joke was on him because TMBG has endured. Heck, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” alone has secured a lasting place in the pop pantheon, and the duo just recently released its 21st studio album. Will the career of the Lemon Twigs, another zany twosome from New York, be as long-lasting? Brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, only 21 and 19, respectively – more millennials! – certainly have grand ambitions, and the talent to go the distance. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

8. Neko Case – Hell-On

cofIndie rock hero Neko Case is one of our most fearless songwriters. She seemingly has no qualms about laying bare her soul on each album she puts out, and her no-bullshit vocals drive the emotional honesty home. She’s also rather prolific, having released six previous solo efforts as well as collaborations with the Canadian bands New Pornographers and the Sadies. (My favourite project in her extensive discography remains 2016’s case/lang/veirs, a gorgeous and strikingly simpatico pas de trois with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, both of whom contribute backing vocals here.) The sheer volume of her repertoire combined with her artistic daredevilry has resulted in a laudable but inconsistent body of work – as much as I’ve liked some of her albums, I can’t name one that I would call brilliant from first cut to last. Her latest is no exception, but it’s quite worthwhile nonetheless. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

9. Superorganism – Superorganism

cofIn the rather grumpy intro to this blog series, I laid the blame for the current dire state of the music industry squarely at the overpriced sneakers of those cursed millennials. But I must grudgingly concede that not everything the Snapchat generation does is bad. Take my #9 pick for the best albums of 2018. Superorganism, a multi-national collective of whippersnappers that features a shockingly young lead vocalist in 18-year-old Orono Noguchi, has a backstory that couldn’t be more “new school.” Continue reading